Over the sound system, B.B. King coaxes stinging, swinging notes from his Gibson. In the open kitchen, a black cook in a Bulls cap greets everyone who takes a seat at the bar while, behind him, a young Latino man watches over the deep fryers. An Asian woman, her coal-black hair streaked with gold, waits on the cooks to fulfill her orders. She’s as thin as a book of poetry, except for the bulge around her belly. She’s clearly carrying chicken and a future child to every table.
This is my first visit to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Greenbelt, and I love the place even before I take a single bite of its famous bird. I had read plenty about this fried chicken — the Tennessee-based chain inspires the kind of hymns reserved for deities and dead rock stars — but I wasn’t prepared for this location’s vibe, an almost idyllic multi-culti atmosphere that appeals deeply to this particular white boy. This outlet, the first in the D.C. market, feels as relaxed as a backyard social, its employees more like neighbors whose individuality is not muted by a dull professionalism. By my second visit, I am an unofficial member of the inner circle.
Like others of its kind, Gus’s is something of a contradiction. It’s a chain based on a dish deeply connected to the South, to home, to thousands of recipes passed down from generation to generation. It’s a chain with the decor of a rural juke joint, its rusticity meticulously re-created with painted barn wood, strings of lights, mismatched chairs and folk art by Lamar Sorrento, the kind of artist who gives the profession a good name. The interior is, at once, artificial and delightful, an injection of country soul to a locale that desperately needs some.
Mark Dawejko, who is white, is the franchisee behind the Gus’s in Greenbelt. He’s an investment banker and the managing partner of Penn Restaurant Group, which is scouting the Mid-Atlantic for even more good-and-greasy locations suitable for Gus’s. He had tried to keep the Greenbelt opening on the QT so he could get its systems locked down and its staff trained up. But controlling the message in the information age is like shepherding houseflies, given that everyone with a smartphone has become a de facto reporter: About two weeks after its opening, on May 1, a reader alerted me to Gus’s surreptitious debut.
A week later, I was sitting on a bar stool, becoming fast friends with the staff. There’s Mike, the cook who serves as the location’s unofficial ambassador. He’s apt to hand you a fried chicken thigh, gratis, as you wait on a meal. There’s Nina, the sweetheart behind the bar, who’s sort of the anti-Donald Trump. She’ll negotiate every order to make sure you get the best deal.
Then there’s Robert, a man I never met. He spends his days secluded in a private room somewhere in the restaurant, prepping birds for the deep fryers. Only a few trusted souls are allowed to enter the room with Robert, who’s apparently the Carthusian monk of Gus’s. He knows the secrets to the
green Chartreuse fried chicken. Or at least some of the secrets, which is more than the owner knows. “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” Dawejko says.
Gus’s sells chicken and only chicken (although Dawejko plans to offer fried catfish later, once he feels the kitchen has perfected the birds), so the recipe is classified information. Frankly, it sounds like cloak-and-dagger hyperbole to me, the Gus’s version of KFC’s secret 11-herbs-and-spices recipe tucked away in a vault. But if it helps them sell chicken, who cares? People need to wrap their lips around these birds.
The first thing I noticed about Gus’s chicken was its exterior: The golden coating (apparently it starts as a liquid) is suffused with a bruised shade of crimson, which should give you a clue. Gus’s chicken conceals a kick of chile pepper, pronounced but not overpowering. Nashville hot chicken this is not. The spice applies to every bird part on the menu, save for the tenders, which hum at a lower frequency. You can thank the wee ones for this break in the heat.
But the spice is not the selling point of Gus’s chicken, or at least not the main one. When fried correctly in peanut oil (note: There are no substitutions for those who suffer from allergies), the chicken crackles under tooth, its skin crisp and its meat unfailingly moist, even with one of those breast-meat behemoths that sits on your plate like a grounded blimp. I did have repeated encounters with chicken that dripped grease onto the white bread beneath them, but I chalked that up to overworked deep fryers in which the oil temperature had dropped too low.
The sides — even the mustard-laced potato salad — lean sweet, an approach that’s supposed to balance out the hot chicken. Personally, I think it’s misguided to think we naturally crave, or need, sugary accompaniments when biting into something spicy. By that logic, volcanic South Indian fare should come with a side of sweet potatoes drizzled with honey. A small burn can be a pleasure all its own. What I am trying to say here is that Gus’s sides can’t compare to the chicken. Same goes for the house-made chocolate chess and pecan pies, which are sweet and satisfying enough but won’t make you pine for them like the chicken will.
If the combination didn’t violate some unspoken pact with your inner dietitian, I’d recommend pairing the fried chicken with the greaseless fried okra or the fried pickles encased in a thick dill-inflected coating. Paired with a Natty Boh tallboy, it’s fried-on-fried on fantastic.
5810 Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt, Md., 240-965-5821, gusfriedchicken.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Greenbelt, with a 1.7-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $2 to $9.75 for starters and sides; $2.50 to $53.95 for individual pieces of chicken and chicken meals.
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